Why Kilmuir?

As we continued on our journey of discovery, we managed to connect some dots to understand my great grandfather’s history and the history surrounding his love for the area, while marvelling at the places where he was inspired and capturing them through the lens of my camera. It was magical.

Lily Casson has been researching the life of her great-grandparents, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe with her family for the last decade. Here, she uncovers clues surrounding the mystery of her great grandfather’s chosen title, Viscount Kilmuir.

“I had thought of calling myself Creich from the little place in Sutherland with the ruined chapel, the graveyard of which contains the bones of my forebears. Sylvia said that she was not going to spend her declining years spelling her name to butcher’s assistants, so I called myself Kilmuir of Creich –the ‘of Creich’ not being part of the title.”

A Political Adventure – The Memoirs of the Earl of Kilmuir, Chapter 13

Of the places that are associated with the life of my great grandfather, the Highlands is shrouded in mystery, like the mist that circles the peaks. The reason why he chose the name Kilmuir when he became an Earl is not known among the family. It was obviously a deeply personal choice, not related to any place he was living at the time – in London or Sussex – or had lived, as far as we knew, so setting off on a Scottish road trip in the autumn of 2012, it felt like we were on a detective hunt for clues that might lead us to discover more.

What did we have to go on? We knew that his mother, Isobel, had been born and brought up in Dornoch, in Sutherland, north of the Highlands. David was her only child, born when she was forty, and she clearly instilled in her son the memories of her childhood world, when they visited regularly for summer holidays.

“To me, the old tales were very close.”

he writes in his autobiography. What’s more, this wild country of lochs, set against the heather and the hills enchanted him.

“To the imagination of my boyhood the countryside … had a magic of its own.”

View from Bonar Bridge

In an introduction he was invited to write for a book written by a fellow Scotsman, George Sutherland-Levenson-Gower, 5th Duke of Sutherland, in 1957, he tells the story of

“A friend of mine, who … once told me that as a child she had always felt that crossing the Dornoch Firth was passing out of the Highlands into a strange country… I had an uneasy feeling that I knew what she meant. The very name Sutherland, the “southern land” looks north to the Viking settlements of Orkney and Shetland.”

Preface to Looking Back : The Autobiography of the Duke of Sutherland

Visiting places that he had known well, and getting to know them, gradually combined his memories with memories we created. We went to Dornoch, where Maxwell Fyfe was made a freeman in 1962, locating the house of his grandmother, which is now a B & B, and exploring its 13th century cathedral ‘built by the last Scot enrolled in the Calendar of Scottish Saints’ and dedicated to St Mary, before warming ourselves by a roaring fire in Dornoch Castle which it faces across the square.

Dornoch Jail

We came across Dornoch Jail, now an up-market shop selling beautiful jumpers and jewellery, and discovered a book telling the story of the late Clearances, where crofters were evicted off the land, in favour of more profitable sheep farming.

In one of the ‘cells’ we picked out a CD of ‘Celtic women’ which we used as a soundtrack to our travels. It was one of the traditional songs on that album, with words by Jim McLean describing the Clearances, that gave us the name for our show.

‘Dreams o’ peace and o’ freedom
So smile in your sleep, bonnie babe’

Jim McLean

For Maxwell Fyfe had a copy of an agreement (a Tack) dated 1798 amongst his private papers. Drawn up by William Dempster, it ensured security for his tenants on the Skibo estate in perpetuity. That Tack was overturned 80 years later, and among those who suffered in the subsequent clearance, we later discovered, was Maxwell Fyfe’s great uncle, who ‘died, heartbroken’ on the day he was due to be taken from his family home and livelihood.

Maxwell Fyfe’s mother, Isobel, was just 17 at the time, and the injustice must have been shocking to her. The story was told as evidence at Gladstone’s Napier Commission in 1883 – which was held further down the Dornoch Firth at Bonar Bridge, which we also visited. Bonar Bridge has now all but subsumed Creich – within which former parish is the area where Isobel’s family were tenants in the mill from which they were later evicted, but the picturesque ‘ruined chapel, (and) graveyard’ containing the bones of his forebears remains. Travelling around in the car, listening to music inspired by the sweeping landscape and
mirrored lochs, brought the East Highlands to life. As we continued on our journey of discovery, we managed to connect some dots to understand my great grandfather’s history and the history surrounding his love for the area, while marvelling at the places where he was inspired and capturing them through the lens of my camera. It was magical.

Dornoch Cathedral dedicated to St Mary

Driving north from Inverness, we found not one but two Kilmuirs – one on the Black Isle, overlooking the Moray Firth, and another in Easter Ross, overlooking the Firth of Cromarty. Maxwell Fyfe gives no indication as to which it might be. Although, as it was firmly pointed out to us at a museum in Tain, there are not two or even three Kilmuirs in the Highlands of Scotland – but many. Translated from the Gaelic, Kilmuir means Church of St Mary, and
there are many of these in the north – and as we now knew, a cathedral in Dornoch.

Returning from our adventures, we have got to know Maxwell Fyfe a little better, having walked the landscape that shaped his beliefs. A member of a cleared family, a freeman of Dornoch, it is easy to understand his connection with this astoundingly beautiful place, and why the law of the land and natural justice had such an impact on his life – fostering his passion to confront evil and protect the innocent. Maybe the importance of the name he chose wasn’t finally in the places that we explored, but in the thoughts and feelings they
evoked.

Inside the Archives

Every stroke of their pen tells a different story, and it is extraordinary to read a letter they wrote so long ago and feel a connection through the paper to my family, whether through a turn of phrase or choice of word.

Lily Casson first visited the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge when she and her family gifted it with the personal papers and official souvenirs of David Maxwell Fyfe. Here she describes how she has grown to know her great grandparents through these materials.

A memorable part of getting to know my great grandparents was through their letters exchanged during the year of the Nuremberg Trials, which we gifted to Churchill Archives in 2010. Every stroke of their pen tells a different story, and it is extraordinary to read a letter they wrote so long ago and feel a connection through the paper to my family, whether through a turn of phrase or choice of word.

On our first visit, an ordinary grey day in 2009, when I was 12 and Robert 9, we felt very important, carrying historical artefacts in our tiny hands down the long path to the centre, through the grounds of Churchill College, Cambridge, feeling the responsibility for the care in our charge. Among them, Maxwell Fyfe’s red boxes of office, containing the letters, along with a copy of the Grand Seal of the United Kingdom.

Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre shows Lily and Robert how the documents are kept

Since then, we have regularly visited to dig deeper into his story. Early on, we filmed a behind the scenes tour of the archive with its director, Allen Packwood, for Under an English Heaven, and it was eye-opening to discover the care and attention each document gets to conserve them, from the mesh between the papers to the fire safe boxes and rolling doors, saving them for a new generation to discover.

More recently, photographing documents for the Dreams of Peace & Freedom performance I’ve grown increasingly aware of how primary source material brings history alive, as these letters and documents, though now preserved in protective tissue, were written by real people, not just historical figures.

Discover the Churchill Archives Centre at https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/archives/

Why a song cycle?

If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice…. though it’s the oldest way in the world.

Songwriter Sue Casson explores why David Maxwell Fyfe’s love of poetry, often quoting his favourites to drive home a legal point, made a song cycle the natural choice for a show that tells the story of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Recently, at a meeting where Tom Blackmore and I were pitching Dreams of Peace & Freedom, which tells the story of Tom’s grandfather, someone asked, ‘why a song cycle?’

It’s a fair question. If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice.

Although it is the way Tom and I have often chosen to tell a story, and as he would tell you, it’s the oldest way in the world. Troubadors since ancient times have entertained rapt audiences with mythic histories, in verse, in song – often with no more than their voice and whatever instrument was light enough to carry. What’s more, I’m a songwriter, Tom a writer – we write shows like that.

But really, that isn’t the whole story, and neither of us have put together a show quite like this before. For the link between those two important post war events was David Maxwell Fyfe, a well-read Scot, who often turned to poetry in his speeches to illustrate what he wanted to say. 

In his closing at the Nuremberg Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe quoted Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V – The Soldier

‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness

In hearts at peace’

are not the prerogative of one nation. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.’

David Maxwell Fyfe quoting Rupert Brooke in his closing at the Nuremberg Trials August 1946

This speech, the first he had made at Nuremberg, and written after he had forensically examined all the evidence and confronted the perpetrators, sets out his commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, and signals his future involvement in enshrining them in law. It is the fulcrum of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. And to drive his point home – Maxwell Fyfe, a learned lawyer – quotes a poet: Rupert Brooke. If we were looking for an opportunity to incorporate music directly into his story it was this – poetry that he had chosen, demanding a musical setting.

‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing about his English teacher at George Watson’s College in his autobiography, A Political Adventure (1964)

With this as our point of inspiration, reading the other four war sonnets in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 collection, published when Fyfe was just fourteen years old, Tom was struck by the way the poetic language expressing Brooke’s idealistic values at the outset of the First World War had filtered through into his grandfather’s speeches.

In his closing at Nuremberg, he not only quotes Brooke directly, but goes on to speak of ‘heritage’, a concept that closes Brooke’s War Sonnet III. As he seeks to create an enforceable treaty to protect human rights after Nuremberg, he champions Safety (War Sonnet II has the same name) and Security, which appears in the same sonnet. Norman Birkett, a British judge at the Nuremberg Trials, goes to considerable trouble to give Fyfe a Scottish poetry collection as a leaving gift, knowing exactly what it will mean to him.

For Maxwell Fyfe delights in finding the imaginative truth through reading, on occasion writing stories and verse himself.

‘romance … is poetry in action. It comes when the inevitable moment finds the inescapable deed,’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing of the tales that defined his childhood in The Watsonion, alumni magazine of George Watson’s College

This almost defines that moment at Nuremberg, when his closing speech expresses an awareness of rights and freedoms for all. A self-confessed romantic of the law, the poetry flows through Fyfe’s conscious and unconscious mind as he expresses what he is seeking to achieve.

In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

Fyfe praised the ‘incomparable songs’ of Scotland, and so musically setting the poetry in his heart beside his spoken words seemed not only effective, but perfectly natural. It represents the imaginative life that informs and reinforces his legal practice. Which is the real reason why his post-war dreams of peace and freedom and how he sought to achieve them, are best brought to life in a song cycle.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the fully mastered recording, will be launched in June 2020. Find out more at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

Nuremberg : A Modern Miracle

When David Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life.

Lily Casson has been researching the life of her great-grandparents, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe with her family for the last decade. Here, she writes her impressions of Nuremberg, which she first visited in April 2009…

Before going to Nuremberg in 2009, I had never been to Germany before. Apart from my patchy school history knowledge of the Second World War, I didn’t have any idea as to what I might discover. It had extra meaning for me, as we were going to find out about my great grandfather, who spent a year there after the war, during the War Crimes Trials as the chief prosecutor of the British team.

Nuremberg, 1945

When Maxwell Fyfe flew out in October 1945, he described the city saying, ‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins.’ Today, however, Nuremberg is a buzzing, metropolitan centre, full of culture and life. It has been rebuilt with care and attention, the buildings have been carefully restored to look new and vibrant. Inside St Sebalds, known as the peace church, an icon of renewal whose towers stayed standing throughout the bombing, the war is remembered with plaques that show the rebuilding process from ruins to the church it is today.

Documentation Centre, Nuremberg, former Nazi Rally Ground

The importance of remembering and confronting the past is at the heart of two museums in the city which tell the story of the Nazis from different perspectives : The Dokumentation Centre, set within the footprint of the Nazi rally ground, which documents the rise of the movement, and Courtroom 600 which brings to life the place where leading Nazis were cross-examined after the war. I, like many of the German schoolchildren who have visited, found it shocking to see the past brought to life where it actually happened.

Market Place, Nuremberg

The willingness of the people of Nuremberg to remember, whilst also moving forward with hope for the future is one of the reasons I love the city so much. Confronting the past with courage and conviction, and learning the lessons of history, it is a testament to the past and an example for the future – truly a modern miracle.